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Tigers and cupcakes: Sex, politicians and the public interest


Ferial Haffajee is Daily Maverick Associate Editor. In her long and storied career, she has been editor-in-chief of both City Press and Mail & Guardian.

Who knew? The Mineral Resources and Energy minister is a tiger. That explains the growl.

To recap: At the weekend, the Sunday World reported that the minister had become ensnared in an alleged extortion attempt by the same woman who had allegedly attempted to out Finance Minister Tito Mboweni a few weeks earlier.

After a woman told the Sunday World that Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe was a “tiger” in bed, it prompted possibly more discussion on social media than the more damaging allegation: the newspaper reported Mantashe had said he’d paid two journalists R70,000 to make the story go away. The SA National Editors Forum is outraged.

The event provokes a different discussion. When are the sex lives of politicians, and the emotional splatters that have resulted, in the public interest? I ask because Mantashe is the third member of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s executive allegedly caught with their pants down.

Besides Mboweni and Mantashe, amaBhungane reported in September 2019 that deputy finance minister David Masondo had also been caught in a messy extra-marital affair and an ensuing alleged extortion attempt. In that case, the Hawks became involved and arrested the woman after Masondo allegedly called the police for help.

In September 2017, Ramaphosa, who was racing for the role of ANC president, also attempted (and failed) to interdict the Sunday Independent from publishing details of love affairs. In it, it was revealed he called his mistress “Cupcake”, thus earning him a presidential baked goods moniker which has stuck.

Sex-positive nation

South Africa is a progressive and sex-positive country. It’s also quite polyamorous. Both Porn Hub and Cheaters have reported high user rates here while the annual sex exposition, Sexpo, reports good revenues through almost recessionary times. On many corners of small-town and urban high streets, it is usually the Adult World store (and often the local chapter of the charismatic church) that survives while other retailers and restaurants go to the wall.

In politics, a sex scandal won’t slay a politician here, as it would in more Puritan societies.

Ramaphosa went on to win the ANC contest; former president Jacob Zuma’s theft was reviled, but his love proficiency was widely admired (except by one of his wives whom he alleged tried to poison him) and both Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula and former finance minister Malusi Gigaba have breezed through similar hot affairs. In fact, Gigaba was for a short while trending on Porn Hub when a home sex video went viral.

Former energy minister Jeff Radebe requested specific sexting photographs by WhatsApp in March 2017 while former deputy minister of defence and military veterans Kebby Maphatsoe also had a sex video go viral on Twitter in 2016.

We are more French this way, or Kenyan. In both countries, leaders have openly had wives and mistresses.

Is there a public interest in the revelations?

But when does a politician’s sex life become of public interest? Possibly never. But there is this consideration. It’s worth asking why the Mining Charter which Mantashe was supposed to have had passed in 2018 is still stuck in policy limbo while the industry suffers from uncertainty.

The other week, Mantashe’s department managed to gazette the incorrect version of the Integrated Resource Plan, the energy blueprint until 2030. Is he distracted? It’s a fair question to ask.

In Masondo’s case, the reports suggested that the Hawks were being used to investigate in an act of influence rather than exercising criminal justice zeal. It usually takes much more to put a rocket under the Hawks, who are quite slow compared with the bird of prey they are named for.

In Mboweni’s case, the minister fought off media coverage when his legal team put out a statement to take the sting out of the tale of the Sunday World exposé. Did it distract Mboweni, the minister standing between us and fiscal Armageddon, as the interdict attempt takes up a lot of time with lawyers?

There is an additional consideration and that is security. All the executive members had their videos and, presumably, their WhatsApp accounts weaponised against them. This suggests they need lessons in digital security as they all have access to important documents of state — or somebody at least needs to teach them to use Confide, the app where messages dissolve into the ether quickly.

If the politicians are being hacked (as one or two suggested) then what if they also use their phones or other devices to send versions of the Budget around or the energy blueprint? Ramaphosa’s Gmail account was hacked to reveal his affairs and later the details of the funding of his campaign to become ANC president.

It’s likely better to live in a society that puts the sex lives of political leaders in the realm of the private and the don’t-give-a-damn, but the extortion attempts now bedevilling more than a busy member or two suggests more caution and consideration, and attention to the job at hand, should be brought to bear. DM


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